Swiss watchmaker Zenith has been making a lot of noise in the industry, and is ready to be one of the top names for watch enthusiasts. After several years under the radar, they appointed Julien Tornare as CEO who is willing to ‘shake some trees’ and propel the brand into the 21st Century.
Tornare spent his first months in the role building a positive team around him before refocusing on the heritage of the brand and narrowing down the exact steps that needed to be taken to bring the timepieces into the future. He has spent the past year travelling the world and analysing the markets and the clients to get a better understanding of what today’s customer really needs.
In the past few months, Zenith launched Defy Lab and opened the doors of their manufacturer to the public. They are more active than ever across all digital platforms and are continuously pushing the boundaries of craftsmanship through innovation and authentic storytelling.
While he was recently in Dubai, we met with the energetic Tornare to discuss his take on the watch industry today and why he is determined for the brand not to be too restricted by its heritage.
How has the past year been for Zenith?
It’s been a fantastic year. We have had a few key moments. The launch of the Defy with the Defy 21 and Defy Classic. I worked a lot on the brand platform this year, and I spent a lot of time with our marketing team to really think and dig up who we are – what is the brand like? Why the name Zenith? Why the star in the logo? These are all open questions that we worked on in order to begin this year with a 360 communication campaign that goes from visual merchandising to social media presence, to advertising campaigns. It kept us busy, but in a good way.
What has been the highlight?
One thing that I’ve been very happy to change this year and a big achievement for me is the mindset. When I came on board, the mood (within the company) was very bad, so it took me a lot of energy in the first six months and now the mood is so different. That’s the best reward for me.
What did you dedicate your time to the most?
I spent a lot of my time travelling. The more I meet people and the more I’m told that many CEO’s and top management from brands are not travelling anymore. They are stuck in their offices attending meetings and creating reports, and I think that’s wrong. You don’t manage a brand without coming to the field. I’m saying this knowing that I should be in the region (Middle East) at lot more often. Not only do I talk about the brand, but I get feedback and that’s feeding me a lot for the future developments.
Tell us a little bit about the Defy collection.
It’s a perfect illustration of what we want to do with the brand. The name is from the sixties within our brand, the shape of the case is inspired by a watch that was created in 1970 – the second year of El Primero. We were the first ones to measure 1/10th of a second with a high frequency and 36,000 vibrations per hour. With this we go to the fastest chronograph in the world measuring 1/100th of a second, so not only were we inspired by the past but we pushed the limit and moved forward, and all of this is done in a contemporary design. We live in the 21st Century, we don’t make watches for our grandparents, we make watches for today’s people.
How do you view the watch industry today?
Today we have brands that have a long history but most of them are stuck in the restrictions of that history, they don’t dare to do something else. They are scared of disrespecting their predecessors, which in my opinion is totally wrong. A hundred years ago when watchmakers were making these watches they were in very tough conditions with very basic tools and often using their hands. Today you make the same watch but you are in a sophisticated workshop, you have the best tools and you have computer assistance. So if you do the same job, it’s actually not respectful, its disrespectful because it’s so much easier to do now. And on top of that you sell it for more. So putting all of that on the table, we decided that in order to respect the past, we start from the past but to build a future.
What inspires the Pilot collection?
It’s a great line, we’ve done it for a long time and we are the only brand who are allowed the ‘Pilot’ name on the dial. We started with the vintage angle, which is good and people like it. I tend to say that vintage is contemporary because it’s cool to have something vintage. The Pilot itself is a good segment, and we will reinforce it, there is no reason why we should be vintage only, we can work on contemporary ways to express ourselves in that segment.
What are the highlights of the UAE edition watch?
Zenith is not an opportunistic brand. We only do very few limited editions and I think it’s important to stay so, but sometimes its important to show a market or region that you get into the local spirit and when I started to discuss that, we knew it would be a nice touch with a hint to the local culture. It’s helping us raise awareness and interest around the brand. We produced around 50 pieces and they are almost all sold out.
What characteristics are crucial to growth in the watchmaking business?
For us its super simple. Having a long history is a great advantage, we are so lucky to have it and I would never disrespect my past – I will start from there and build a future. But it’s also about being real and authentic. Everybody wants to be authentic, but the watchmaking industry has not always been very transparent about showing exactly what they do – whether you hide the back of a watch case or you don’t want to open your manufacturer – we are 100 percent authentic because 100 percent of our watches have a Zenith movement. How many manufacturers can say that at the moment? It’s a handful. So we are part of the very few.
Some people say, “the new generation doesn’t care, they only want to have celebrities and high-end marketing”, I disagree. The new generation have so much access to information, they can know everything about anything at any time. That’s exactly when you have to come back with a message of authenticity that Zenith is Zenith. One hundred per cent of our watches are made with the Zenith movement that we do ourselves. So we sell you substance, we don’t sell you marketing, we are a real brand. It doesn’t mean we should not be more appealing and cool and have a celebrity, we can have it, but the basic of the basic is real. Especially in China, where many brands put all their eggs in the same basket, willing to only be strong in China. The new generation of Chinese were born in the culture of the ‘fake’ and they are scared of fake, and they are scared of things that aren’t true. They want a real product at the right price, and I think we are perfectly positioned. Opening the doors to public visits of our manufacture is in line with our philosophy and we have nothing to hide. We had visits from four or five of our competitors and we welcomed them, so this is our philosophy in an industry that has not always been transparent.
How are you adapting for today’s customer and how do you connect with a younger watch collector?
Everybody is scared about losing the new generation, but we have to show them that we are dynamic, that we are authentic, and that’s the only way we have a chance to keep them interested.
What feedback are you receiving from the customers in the Middle East?
Globally a lot of compliments meaning that finally something is moving. People feel that there’s a lot of energy and I’m trying to push that energy throughout the organisation – and that already changed the perception of the brand, having the right people in the right positions. Then of course when you come with the right product, they sell out and people are talking about them. We are present on social media – when I came on board a year and a half ago, the website was not even responsive so that’s the first thing I did, I fixed the website to make it more attractive and younger. There was little presence on social media and now we have multiple posts per day. It’s a different approach, and the first feedback I get is that we are not yet the top brand, but we are showing that a lot of things are happening within the brand. While many are escaping, we are shaking the tree and that’s what people are noticing.
What challenges does the watch industry face at the moment?
I could come back to authenticity. I hear that people don’t trust brands anymore, it’s a challenge that needs to be fixed and at Zenith we are aware of it. Another one is after-sale service, it’s now more important than ever. I met a group of clients a couple of weeks ago in Paris and I was told that after-sales is “very expensive, we didn’t know we had to handle a watch in this way, how come repairing a watch is so expensive?” So we need to think of new ways, a new approach. You cannot be only innovative in the products, that’s why we opened up the visits, that’s why we do customisation with Bamford and we’re exploring different things. I believe after-sale service, the way it’s been handled for decades should be reconsidered so I’m working on a new offer.
What can we expect in 2019?
We have three big things. The first one is the anniversary of the El Primero movement, which is super important for us but a tricky exercise because most brands celebrate their own anniversary or a watch model – we celebrate the movement. We will work on a concept of twelve events in twelve different cities, one per month, and we will work on the concept that connects the original El Primero to the latest development of today, to go with something of the future, something that doesn’t exist. In a way we will sell something that doesn’t exist yet, but will exist in three to four years, and the people who acquire that concept will be the only ones to fully connect the past to the future in a very interesting way. The second element is the Defy Lab which will commercialise, and the third big element is the launch of the new brand platform including the 360 communication.
What would you like to do at Zenith that you haven’t done yet?
We are working on the right offer for women. It doesn’t mean a women’s watch, I don’t believe we should do segmentation, that’s something from the past. I think today we live in a world where we talk a lot about men and women being equal on all levels and I don’t think we should have a watch for men and a watch for ladies. We should make beautiful watches that can be worn by both. Of course we need to work on our retail, we have 20 boutiques in the world, but we’ve been treating retail a little bit like wholesale, there hasn’t been a retail culture in the company so I’m putting a team together to develop a retail mindset and tools.
How do you balance desirability and creativity with the business side?
We have to balance. If you let the creatives do the business then you’ll get in trouble, and if you ask the business to be creative then that’s also not easy. I have to be in-between. Recently I asked for a specific design of a watch I want to create and it’s been a fourth time they’ve come with a design and I’m not happy with the result and they are convinced that the watch is going to sell, but I’m not. We need to take the time to do it well. On the other side, I ask our marketing team to be creative. I tell them to go and try things and maybe you do ten things and maybe seven are okay, two are great and one is a mistake, and that’s okay. People without this entrepreneurial spirit never make mistakes, because if you’re told to stay within the frame and you never make a mistake, then you’re a follower, and that’s something I really don’t like.
What do you say no to?
Staying still. I don’t like the lack of rationality. When you do something you have to know why. In Switzerland, watchmaking is typical, they love what they do but they believe it’s the best in the world and people will love it, but they forget to ask themselves ‘is it right for the client?’ In other words, it’s very manufacture-centric versus client-centric. There is a concept that I agree with – you put a red chair around the table and every decision that’s made around the table, we ask the red chair representing the client. Is it good for the client? There are people in the company that want to keep watches that don’t sell because they are beautiful and you have to stop that so they take me for a serial killer! I stop the watch because it’s not a success. Whenever you do something, think about the person who is going to use it, to buy it, to love it and that’s a change in mentality.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury for me is something that immediately drives emotion. When I see it, when I buy it, when I use it, there is a special emotion. Luxury means rarity and exclusivity, but to me before anything, it gives you an emotion.
What book are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a book by a Swiss writer Joël Dicker called La Vérité Sur L’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair).
How would you describe yourself?
I’m really passionate, not only about my job but in general. When I do things I like to go in-depth. I like to give 200 per cent. Whether you succeed or fail, when you give 200 per cent you never have any regrets. I like to work in a good environment. I always experienced that whether it was at school with a teacher or coach when I was doing sport, which was a big part of my life, or now with the boss, I like to be inspired and I like someone that helps you grow.
Summarise Zenith in one sentence.
Zenith has a long history and heritage that’s living and expressing in the 21st Century as a real brand with substance and content. We want to be authentic, but having history and authenticity doesn’t mean that you need to dress in an old fashioned way, so you need to produce things of today’s world, if not tomorrow’s.
Describe the view from your office window?
There are two windows. From one I can see the production building, and the other is behind me that I like to sometimes turn to. We have 18 buildings at Zenith because our founder in 1865 at 22 years old was the first to think about putting all the crafts under the same roof. Previously when you had to make a watch, you had to go and see different entities. He was the first to go and hire people, so that’s why he built so many buildings and behind me is the first one. The one that started everything. Now it’s in poor condition, we should renovate it into a museum or something, but I like to turn and imagine I see the guy there working. There are still some work stations there but it was abandoned 40 years ago. Sometimes when I want to have a little break I look at that and think ‘wow that’s where it started’.